Oz Bengur proved last week that he can win a race, at least in the literal sense, against his opponent in the Democratic primary for the 2nd District congressional seat, Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, by default.
On Tuesday, Bengur, the businessman-turned-candidate, challenged Ruppersberger to a series of 5-kilometer (3.1-mile) races the next three mornings. The county executive, a former athlete who was severely injured in an auto accident 20 years ago, has bad knees from his days playing lacrosse and has undergone five surgeries on his feet, ignored him.
"I'd rather spend my time working the district talking about issues like health care, prescription drugs, homeland security and helping get the stock market back together," Ruppersberger said.
Nonetheless, Bengur and an entourage of campaign workers hit the pavement along three major thoroughfares in the district - Liberty Road in Randallstown, U.S. 40 in Howard County and Eastern Avenue in Essex - all, he insisted, in an effort to "draw attention to the issues."
It was another episode in a campaign that has wavered between the serious and the comic from the start.
Bengur talks about education, health care and Social Security and then buys the rights to the Web site name www.ruppersberger forcongress.com so that it displays information about him instead. He spends hours shaking hands and attending community meetings, then writes a poem to defray attention from the illegal posting of his campaign signs.
One minute he is saying Ruppersberger is an arrogant leader who ignores the people, the next he is challenging the executive to a footrace.
"That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard of," said Michael S. Kosmas, the campaign director for front-running Republican Helen Delich Bentley. "Why doesn't he challenge Dutch to a debate?"
Bengur promised a few weeks ago to do just that, but he hasn't yet. He and his staff acknowledged that the running stunt was an attention-getting tactic.
"Since the media wants to cover tongue-in-cheek events when it comes to our race, we decided we'd do a tongue-in-cheek event," said David Brown, Bengur's communications director.
Bengur also complains that nobody wants to talk about serious issues in the race.
Over the past five months, he has put out a handful of press releases proposing tougher accounting and business ethics standards, applauding the Maryland Court of Appeals decision to throw out state legislative maps and expressing support for Israel.
Bengur criticized Ruppersberger's official Web site, www.dutchforcongress.com.
"Look at my Web site and look at his Web site. You'll find issues on my Web site. On his Web site, it's all fluff," Bengur said.
But one of his advertisements pokes fun at Ruppersberger's record as county executive. Airing on the Comcast TV Guide Channel is an ad reading, "It's 509, Stupid," a play on the "It's the economy, stupid" mantra of the 1992 Clinton campaign and Senate Bill 509, a property condemnation plan backed by Ruppersberger but rejected by voters.
After his campaign workers posted his signs on telephone poles around Towson - illegal under state and local law - he sent a letter to the editor of The Sun suggesting in a mostly rhyming six-stanza poem that voters are concerned about things other than illegal signs. Now posted on his Web site, it concludes:
"For when people hear me talk
They are certain to start humming,
In the 2nd Congressional District,
The Oz man is coming!"
But interviews with political observers around the district - mainly Democrats who are not allied with Ruppersberger - suggest that four months into the Bengur campaign, the voters have yet to start humming.
Many said they see Ruppersberger as vulnerable, but that the vulnerability has yet to translate into widespread support for Bengur.
"I have seen a lot of [Bengur's] literature dropped at different places along parking lots and door to door, he's been in the area heavily campaigning, and I know he's made appearances at a lot of events," said Debi Golden, a Dundalk Democrat who is running for County Council. "But there hasn't been a lot of buzz about it or talk one way or another."
A poll taken this month by Annapolis-based Gonzales/Arscott Research & Communications Inc. found a close race between Ruppersberger and Bentley, but it didn't include questions about Bengur or any of the other Democrats in the race.
The poll did show that the percentage of people with negative impressions of Ruppersberger was 26 percent and those with positive impressions was 42 percent.
Noel Levy, a County Council candidate from Owings Mills who was a leading opponent of SB 509, said that conforms with what he is hearing about the campaign.
"I think they're looking for an alternative to Ruppersberger, and I think this has been a great opportunity for [Bengur], and he has presented himself as an alternative," Levy said. "He still has a way to go."